African Feminism and the dilemma of Class

From the quietness of the large crowd gathered in a circle, it was hard to tell what was happening. It was only when my elder brother and I got in close enough that we saw it was a man beating his wife. Between the grunts of exertion and cries for help we learned that the wife had come to look for her husband, and Kenya’s Kwambira town – not being particularly big – had easily found him in a bar.

It was an emergency. Their daughter was ill and with non-existent ambulance services in the town, she needed money to pay for a taxi. I was about 10 years old, and my brother only six years older, became my hero that day because he intervened and pulled the man away from his wife.

In trying to understand the links between class, masculinity and feminism I often go back to that moment. And how in either lamenting gender inequality or in applauding the important strides toward gender we fail to see its connection to class and poverty.

Kwambira is very poor – the residents are either jobless, or work as day laborers. The moment the wife walked into that bar, she was in essence undressing a wounded masculinity. With the shame of being in a bar and an inability to provide sustenance above the poverty level in a society where manhood is everything, the man could only assert control and power by beating his wife in public. Patriarchy, debilitating poverty and a wounded sense of masculinity had become a lethal cocktail.

Yet the wife was only doing what any reasonable person would do. A child is sick and the husband is squandering the little money needed on alcohol with other equally wounded men. And more generally, that woman was responding to what society demanded of her. When disasters strike, be it in the form of war or famine, African women are the first responders because it is them who fetch water, cook and look after the health of the children.

Could it be then that they were both victims of class and that the wife was a double victim because of her gender? To me African feminism, which out of necessity has to understand African masculinity, is a theory that tries to explain what put both husband and wife on violently opposing paths, and how she, other women and ultimately society can liberate all of us – male and female alike – not just from patriarchy where prisoner and the guard are both locked up, but from oppression in general terms.

Simple enough. Yet mention feminism to African cultural purists, and you become an agent of Westernisation. African purists are peddlers of miracle water; keep your culture pure and all the continent’s other problems – classism, poverty and the national and international usurpation of natural resources – will disappear. But in vanquishing real and imagined enemies, they end up defending the most retrogressive aspects of African cultures.

We have been here before. When the colonists and their missionaries came to Africa, the purists said it was African to be hospitable. Come independence and they said it was African to forgive. To the pro-democracy youth fighting dictators these purists said it was African to respect our elders.

And to women seeking equality, the cultural purists argue it is not natural that women have an equal footing to men – The Bible forbids it and that advocating feminism is yet another form of Westernisation. In short, it is part of African culture to keep women oppressed. The problem is: who decides what is African culture and what is not? The only thing that culture guarantees is that it will change and is dynamic.

African women have been at the forefront of that change. They were part and parcel of the liberation movements, from the Mau Mau to the revolution in Algeria and the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Women were also at the forefront of Africa’s post-independence democratisation struggles. They have had to fight not only for national liberation and democratisation but also for their rights as women.

As a result there have been substantial changes for the better. The African Union and most constitutions recognise and promise to promote equality before the law and in positions of power. Today, we have an female president in Liberia and women constitute 50 per cent representation in Rwanda’s parliament. Throughout the continent women are represented in all facets of national life. But this is not the full story.

Present-day African feminism has made peace with neo-liberal capitalism, which is leaving poverty and inequality in its wake. Neo-liberal democracy has come to mean protecting these interests. The man and wife in Kwambira are condemned to remain in poverty even though armed with the vote. Gender equality will be undermined by the debilitating poverty that the African majority poor live in.

Yes women are oppressed as women, and the politics of liberation have to be cognizant of gender, but that women can be free from patriarchy within the marginalisation that comes with poverty is an oxymoron. Class matters and we have to fight it alongside with patriarchy.

And for the African men, the ultimate question is whether we can put aside the useless grandstanding and destructive masculinities and work with women for a democracy that sees both patriarchy and class as the pervasive enemies within democracy and globalisation.

*Mukoma wa Ngugi is the author of Nairobi Heat (Penguin, SA 2009) and Hurling Words at Consciousness (AWP, 2006). He is also a political columnist for the BBC Focus on Africa Magazine where this essay first appeared.